WASHINGTON — Maybe someday soon Matt Jones will be the Redskins’ starting running back. Maybe two years from now comparisons to bigger players like Marshawn Lynch or Frank Gore or Eddie Lacy will be apt.
For now, the third-round pick from Florida, a power back Washington has lacked for years, is a reserve just trying to make his way as a rookie in the NFL. He realizes starting running back Alfred Morris is a free agent after this season. He also understands most first-year players must wait their turn.
“I know how the game goes,” Jones said. “Just playing behind somebody — like, my freshman year [at Florida], I played behind Mike Gillislie. I had to learn my role and just help my team out. Alfred Morris has been the starter. I know he’s going to be the starter. But we will compete. I will compete with anybody who’s in front of me.”
Morris, of course, is a textbook case of a rookie not waiting his turn at all. A sixth-round pick from Florida Atlantic, Morris earned the starting running back job in training camp before the 2012 season. He’s a strong runner, powering through arm tackles for extra yardage and able to use his blockers to set up cutback lanes.
But his numbers have also plummeted since that 2012 season where he and quarterback Robert Griffin III played off each other so well. Morris has dropped from 4.8 yards per carry to 4.6 to 4.1. Take out the quarterbacks and that ranked 19th in the NFL last season.
Those struggles aren’t all on Morris, of course. The offensive line deserves its share of the blame. And better quarterback play could make the offense less one-dimensional and give it a chance to actually sit on a lead. It’s tough to get your No. 1 running back 20 carries a game if you’re always passing to catch up.
Still, Morris’ declining numbers and his position itself all make a contract extension unlikely. And so the Redskins need some insurance. Morris could have a huge year and then hit the open market and exceed Washington’s price range. Or if he struggles the Redskins could have an internal replacement ready in Jones.
“We’ll see. That’s what training camp’s for, the preseason games,” Gruden said. “And Alfred is a darn good half back. In order to take carries off of him you’ve got to show a lot. And so far Matt’s taken the right steps to take a little bit of the load off of Alfred. Like I said before, Alfred is our feature back, obviously. But In the NFL nowadays it’s important to have two, three guys that can carry the ball.”
Redskins coaches see something more in Jones than just a traditional power back. At rookie minicamp over the weekend he showed good quickness for a big man, got to the linebackers with speed and made moves in space you wouldn’t expect from a 231-pounder.
Jones’ college career didn’t always go as planned. Florida missed a Bowl game his final two seasons in Gainesville and coach Will Muschamp was fired after last year. Jones rushed for 817 yards as a junior. He caught just 19 passes in three years, though NFL draft analysts and Redskins coaches think he has decent hands and can get more comfortable in that role.
But that’s a process and Jones has to prove he can handle everything asked of him this season before even thinking about pushing for Morris’ starting job. The Redskins had a hole at reserve running back. Jones is expected to fill it. That’s his first task. Anything more than that will have to wait.
“I think I can add more size to the backfield, more catching out of the backfield, more blocking, protection-wise,” Jones said. “I feel like I can do it all. I feel like I can complement Alfred Morris at the same time. I’m just doing what I can out here for the team.”